Everything Is Infrastructure

Here’s the talk I gave at yesterday’s OOOIII symposium at The New School. I was honored to have been invited to take part! Tim Morton was UStreaming the event, but of course the feed died when I did my bit. Yet he kindly edited the audio and uploaded it to archive.org.

Archigram, ca. 1970; via V&A Museum


[TITLE SLIDE] This, as you may know, is a t-shirt that Tim designed to commemorate this very occasion. I could never wear this shirt; it – and the philosophical object it represents – withdraw from me. I am not a philosopher. I simply study things. I’m sure that in the course of my talk I’ll find myself in violation of the OOO Handbook; I’m sure I’ll use terms in ways that offend your sensibilities; I’ll perhaps focus too much on relations; I’ll perhaps not move the human subject far enough out of the way. For these transgressions, I ask for your forgiveness. With that said, let’s begin.

In “The Great Gizmo,” an article published in 1965 in Industrial Design magazine, architectural historian and design critic Reyner Banham explained how [SLIDE] “the most typical American way of improving the human situation has been by means of crafty and unusually compact little packages, either papered or with patent numbers, or bearing the inventor’s name to a grateful posterity.” The class of objects ranged “from the Franklin Stove, and the Stetson Hat, through the Evinrude outboard to the walkie-talkie, the spray can and the cordless shaver.” The portability of these gadgets – the fact that they “can get by without any infrastructure” – has been critical to the American way of life, which he celebrated. [SLIDE] “The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention.”

[SLIDE] Last April, the design-publishing think tank Leagues & Legions organized a networked blogging event dedicated to “remixing, revisiting, and remastering” two classic architectural texts, one of which was Banham’s. Architect Rob Holmes, who has blog called mammoth, was struck by Banham’s description of “the most characteristic” of US products:

[SLIDE] a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires.  The minimum of skill is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from catalogue and delivered to its prospective user.

[SLIDE] I imagine that as I read that passage, many of us were conjuring up in our mind’s eyes a mental image of [CLICK] a sleek, palm-sized white or black device currently resting, in a nest woven from earbud wires, in our messenger bags or back pockets. This of course wasn’t Banham’s vision; he was writing in the mid 60s. But the iPhone seems to be among today’s likely candidates for “the most characteristic” US product. Yet as Holmes argues, it doesn’t completely live up to Banham’s billing. The gadget does indeed fulfill what some regard as advanced capitalism’s era-defining “human desires”: for mobility; self-contained, all-in-one convenience; plug-and-play accessibility (maybe without the “plug”) – but is the iPhone really “independent of any physical or social infrastructure?” [SLIDE] As Holmes demonstrates in his brilliant post, this gizmo is “not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production…but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.” He takes us on a trans-scalar tour of [SLIDE] the mines – in Canada, South Korea, Belgium, Russia, and Peru – from which we derive the materials for the gadget’s lithium-ion battery and indium tin oxide conducting solution; [SLIDE] the plant in Shenzhen, China, where a quarter-million people are responsible for the gizmo’s assembly; [SLIDE] the server farms, the network’s nerve centers, in Washington, Florida, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Iowa; [SLIDE] and the cell towers and antennae that make transmission possible.

[SLIDE] A quick aside: just last week architects Michael Chen and Justin Snider, who are mashing up various data sources to map what they call urban “signal space,” took the students in my Urban Media Archaeology class on a scavenger hunt for cell phone towers around The New School.

[SLIDE] Industrial designer Ben Millen offers a “conceptual diagram” that allows us to [SLIDE] zoom in and out and consider the [SLIDE] various scales and geographies that Holmes’s tour reaches – [SLIDE] the interlocking infrastructures that collectively constitute this supposedly infrastructure-independent gizmo.

[SLIDE: VIDEO] Our iPhones thus only seem to be untethered. The entire world of “wirelessness” is, likewise, not what it seems. As Adrian Mackenzie argues in a recent book on the topic, wirelessness “designates an experience trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures, and services, and imbued with indistinct sensations and practices of network-associated change” (5). Wirelessness might even be the exact opposite of what the label suggests:

[SLIDE] While the notion of wireless networks implies that there are fewer wires, it could easily be argued that actually there are more wires. Rather than wireless cities or wireless networks, it might be more accurate to speak of the rewiring of cities through the highly reconfigurable paths of chipsets. / Billions of chipsets means trillions of wires or conductors on a microscopic scale (64-5).

Yet we can’t ignore the continued existence of, and the integral function played by, [SLIDE] massive wires on a super-macroscopic scale – a global Internet infrastructure mapped by telecom market research firms like Telegeography. At the same time, we have Wired correspondent and Metropolis contributing editor Andrew Blum, who’s writing a book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet, [SLIDE] homing in on the particular materialities of specific nodes within that global network. He takes us on a tour leading from oceanside manholes; to 60 Hudson Street in downtown Manhattan, where transoceanic and transcontinental lines converge; to data centers with their sophisicated security infrastructures; and along railroad tracks, which paved the way for long-distance “data pipes.” (Incidentally, Andrew took my Urban Media Archaeology class from last year on a walking tour of the Internet infrastructure of Lower Manhattan.)

Between [SLIDE] the work of InfraNet Lab, a “research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics” and [SLIDE] advocates for what they call “infrastructural opportunism;” [SLIDE] to my colleagues Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruze’s recent Geologic City project, which reveals the “forces and flows of geologic material that give form to the built environment of the city”; [SLIDE] to MoMA’s current “Talk to Me” exhibition, [SLIDE] which explores “communication between people and things,” and between things and things, and places and things; [SLIDE] to the walking tours of urban systems organized by design consultancy spurse for the [SLIDE] BMW Guggenheim Lab that’s resided downtown this summer, there’s no shortage of interest in infrastructures and the objects that comprise them. [SLIDE] Former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested in 2009 that “renewed interest in infrastructure” within the design community has been attributable in large part to Obama’s original stimulus package, which tasked the country’s designers with “rethinking the networks – train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts – that bind our communities together.” Ouroussoff noticed a rise, “for the first time in decades,” of new infrastructure-focused graduate architecture studio courses.

I’d argue that the interest began to emerge well before Obama. Hurricane Katrina and other international disasters drew attention to the weaknesses in our existing infrastructures. [SLIDE] And Michael Chen, leader of the Signal Space project I referenced earlier, suggested to me that architecture’s interest in infrastructure has grown with the increased availability of data, not only GIS data, but data “generated by buildings themselves”; that data often covers large swaths of geography, and architects, according to Chen, “aspire to work at scales consistent with the scale of the data.” What’s more, he says, is that working at the scale and within the context of infrastructure, rather than at the scale of the architectural “object,” has the potential to have greater impact on the built environment. What’s interesting to consider, in light of this particular symposium, is how architects have sought explicitly to [SLIDE] move beyond “the object,” which implies, among other things, an appreciation of architecture that looks beyond the subject, beyond the starchitect creator and his masterwork; work within a scale that’s larger than that of the edifice; and a realization of that edifice’s place within a larger network of cultural and political economic, and material forces.[i] This movement beyond the object is actually, in some respects, quite similar to the privileging of the object advocated by object-oriented ontology in that it aims to take the human out of the center of the enterprise.

[SLIDE] While architecture moves beyond the object (although others are simultaneously calling for a return to it), my own field, Media Studies, continues to expand its interest in the media object and media infrastructures. McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis, along with Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedion and many others who have since been claimed by the “media ecology” tradition, long ago inspired interest in media’s material form, its sensory properties, and the larger cultural, political, and even material ecologies that particular media give rise to. While many in media studies are still committed to textual analysis and identity construction and issues of subjectivity, many others – growing numbers – have turned their attention to media as designed objects, to the issue of e-waste, to the spatiality and geography of communication, and to infrastructure.

[SLIDE] This turn to the object or the material network has undoubtedly been inspired over the past few decades by shifting materialities in the media landscape (Bolter 1991, Landow 1991). The early 1990s gave rise to a great deal of scholarship questioning the existence of a new “ontology” of new media; and with the rise of each new “new” – wirelessness, augmented reality, etc. – we’ve repeated the question. Wendy Chun, who presented on a panel examining “object-oriented feminism” at the 2010 Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference, suggested that the recent rise of object-oriented philosophy and “thing theory” draw inspiration from the same source: these new philosophical enterprises are “themselves responses to – not simply theoretical tools necessary to examine – new media.”

[SLIDE] There are many of us in Media Studies, in addition to Ian Bogost, who are working on media objects and infrastructures. Lisa Parks and [SLIDE] Nicole Starosielski have done innovative work on satellite television and transoceanic cable infrastructures. [SLIDE] My own past work has focused on “media spaces” – libraries, archives, reading rooms, schools, media company headquarters, media production facilities, and a variety of other spaces where media is a key actor – as both conceptual and physical infrastructures. [SLIDE] I’ve been interested in how these physical architectures, the material properties of the media housed within them, and the publics that both design and use them, all act upon and mutually construct one another. [SLIDE] I consider how the form of the technology informs the shape of the building; how those technological forms in turn offer direction regarding how people are to interact with them; which in turn informs the program and plan of the building. And vice versa. The relationship between media technologies and architecture needn’t even be mediated through human users; sometimes media have spatial demands of their own – say, they require lots of power outlets, or they need a climate-controlled environment – which can be directly translated into architectural designs.

[SLIDE] Over the past few years I’ve turned more to German media theory – in particular, media archaeology – to help me in my current study – of historical urban media infrastructures. [SLIDE] There’s a presumption in media studies, and in various design studies and practices, that since the rise of the mechanically produced image, media have served as actants in shaping the material city; thus we have the “photographic city,” “the “cinematic city” and various forms of the “digital city,” including a relatively recent variant that I find particularly interesting, the “sentient city.” [SLIDE] I’m looking instead at the longue durée of urban mediation, focusing on media technologies – telegraphy and telephony, print, writing, and the voice that emerged before the widespread availability of the mechanically reproduced image, yet which have had residual impact on the city through the present day.

Erkki Huhtamo, inspired by Foucault’s archaeological method, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” and the [CLICK] “’excavation’ of the ways in which these discursive traditions and formulations have been ‘imprinted’ on specific media machines and systems in different historical contexts” (223). [SLIDE] Adapting Huhtamo’s model to suit an “excavation” at the urban scale, I focus on the recurring or residual media “elements and motives” that guide the development of the material city. I look at, but also beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what Wolfgang Ernst (2003) calls its “logical structure” and “hardware” (n.p.). These infrastructures include everything from wires and cables and amplifier stations, to the acoustic properties of various building surfaces – and they plug into parallel infrastructures: power and transportation, for example.

[SLIDE] Media archaeology tends to distance itself from archaeology proper, but when we’re dealing with material landscapes and assemblages of material objects, perhaps we could learn something from archaeologists who have experience in dealing with these types of materials, and who know that “excavation” can be more than a Foucauldian-inspired metaphor. In addition, archaeologists’ recognition of the temporal “entanglement” of the material record could prove useful in understanding how various infrastructural networks interact with one another across time (Witmore 2006: 280). Referencing the influential work that geographers Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin have done on telecommunications infrastructures, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes, in his study of media infrastructure in Nigeria: “Newly developed networks do not eradicate earlier ones but are superimposed on top of them, creating a historical layering over time” (6). [SLIDE] Telegraph lines line the railways; fiber optic cables parallel old copper cable laid nearly a century before; public spaces once popular as sites of public address become places for the exchange of new publications after the rise of print, and those spaces later become wireless hotspots. Archaeology – both media archaeology and archaeology proper – could reveal the “entanglement” of infrastructural systems’ lifespans – when old media “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new infrastructures “remediate” their predecessors. Embodied within these “entanglements” are shifts with real-world consequences – increases or decreases in the speed or accessibility of networks; expanding or contracting reach to various geographic areas; the degree of publicness, however you want to define it, of particular sites, both micro and macro scale.

[SLIDE] I’ve also found it helpful to approach this project by thinking through objects, and to so do collaboratively. For the past two years students in my graduate studios have been collaboratively mapping various historical media infrastructures while simultaneously building an object – a database-driven open-source mapping platform – that captures, as much as possible, the distinctive spatial, temporal, and material qualities of the systems we’re examining. Rather than translating the natures of these objects into some linear written form, we’re spatalizing and temporalizing our “arguments” on a map. Our networked mode of representation is in keeping with the networked objects we’re studying. Students are then able to find the spatial juxtapositions of their various networks, to identify the places and times where objects bump up against one another. They’re also speculatively taking on the perspective of the objects they’re researching. One student creating a map layer about carrier pigeons that took the perspective of the pigeon. Another placed herself within the network of newspaper distribution by physically following the path our daily New York Times takes from the printing plant, through several truck and van transfers, to her doorstep. And I’m excited to being imagining how the pneumatic mail system – which is a topic I’ve already written about – functioned from the perspective of a pneumatique.

What are the potentials for knowing the infrastructure if we become the infrastructure? What are the potentials for knowing objects by imaginatively becoming those objects, by interacting with the various other objects with which they come into contact?  An object-oriented methodology might help explode the myth of the gizmo – the infrastructure-free object – and foster an appreciation for the vibrant matter that resides within all of our media, material or immaterial.

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Everything Is Infrastructure by Shannon Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.